Time to recall GA’s World War II heroes

This year marked the final roll call for brave World War II fliers fading from the scene. No, it wasn’t the Doolittle Raiders, whose four survivors (three present) celebrated their final reunion last month. There’s another band of brothers: Some of GA’s World War II heroes who reunited annually for more than 60 years. Their last squadron-mate “flew West” this year.

Fittingly, it was the veteran who ran many of those gatherings who passed on in February at age 93. He was the affable Arthur “Tom” Worth of Closter, N.J., who had chaired reunions of the Civil Air Patrol Coastal Patrol Base 2 for many a year each September in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Like his mates, Worth had volunteered at Rehoboth in early 1942 to patrol for (and later, bomb) Nazi submarines. Many provided their own GA aircraft to do so.

 Credit: Historical Society of Palm Beach County,Florida Caption: WWII CAP Coastal Patrol pilot ready and equipped for over-water anti-sub patrol, including a bomb load.

WWII CAP Coastal Patrol pilot ready for anti-sub patrol, including a bomb load. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County, Florida.

For some reason, perhaps because of those annual reunions since 1946, it was Base 2 veterans who best kept the flame alive. Some of the most famous “CAP subchasers” flew out of Base 2, among the first of 21 CAP anti-sub bases from Maine to Mexico.

This was no game. The military was unprepared for World War II, enemy subs were operating so close to East and Gulf Coast shores that freighters and tankers were torpedoed within sight of land. War material for Europe, even heating oil for New England, was obliterated in the shooting gallery U-boat crews called “The Happy Time.”

By March 1942, shipping losses grew so gruesome that the news was suppressed. That month, civilian pilots and planes of the new CAP (founded just before Pearl Harbor on Dec. 1 — Tom Worth’s 22nd birthday) began searching for subs. In just days, Base 2 pilots got CAP’s first sighting at the mouth of the Delaware River, catching a sub stalking a tanker out of Philadelphia’s Sun Oil refinery. (Two months before, a U-Boat captain had navigated up the Hudson past New York City unmolested!)

The threat was not illusory. Andy Pew — longtime chairman of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association — told me the chilling story. As a youngster in the Sun Oil Co. family, he watched the company’s flagship sail past his Atlantic City hotel window. As he watched, it was blown to smithereens. No wonder Sun Oil provided an initial $10,000 and convinced other “Seven Sisters” to finance the $70,000 Tanker Protection Fund to help CAP get off the ground.

Visionary GA pilots saw that our planes and pilots could be valuable for national defense. First under Civil Defense, then as U.S. Army Air Force auxiliary, CAP pilots flew the lonely Gulf or chilly Atlantic waters on a single engine to dive on and disrupt sub attacks. They helped rescue hundreds of torpedoed crewmen and, after being armed, sank one or two subs and damaged 17 others. That’s right, bomb-carrying Stinson 10s and Fairchild 24s.

Aside from its Doolittle-like reunions, Base 2 seemed to play an outsized role in Coastal Patrol history. One vet came to represent the heroism of all: Eddie Edwards. With Base 2 commander Hugh Sharp, Edwards received the first Air Medal of World War II awarded by the President. Not an Army pilot, not a Navy pilot, but a CAP flier!

 CAP Coastal Patrol Base 2’s Eddie Edwards receives first WWII Air Medal to be presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Eddie Edwards receives first WWII Air Medal to be presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Edwards’ heroic rescue of a downed airmen at sea is in the history books, or go to CAPHistory.org — the online CAP museum I created for the CAP Historical Foundation (CAPHF.)

Fifty-nine CAP fliers died during World War II, including 26 lost at sea among the scores who had to ditch and join CAP’s “Duck Club.”

Eddie Edwards and his comrades, save those who died at sea from Base 2, convened each September at Rehoboth’s Henlopen Hotel, organized by good old Tom Worth. By the 1980s, historians began supporting the effort and cataloging their story. Tom Worth would tell his last reunion (by speaker phone in 2012) he was astounded that “there would be historical focus on our work seven decades later.” Historians and supporters may continue the annual reunion in these heroes’ memory.

December to Remember

All of us in GA are asked to remember CAP each Dec. 1, the anniversary of its founding. CAP will be 75 soon but it’s not all about history. CAP’s recent advances in technology and equipment keep it modern despite a sometimes rocky, outdated reputation in the community. I think CAP has always diminished its operational reputation by over-emphasizing the cadet program (something very valuable to the Air Force, CAP’s modern-day funder.) CAP is far more than a “Boys Scouts of Aviation,” even though its internal politics is as pervasive as any other volunteer organization.

However you feel about CAP, you’ll have two moments soon to acknowledge its World War II heroics and history. Do so in tribute to the thousands of “Greatest Generation” CAP people like Tom Worth, Eddie Edwards and so many more.

First, you might win the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 2014 Sweepstakes Airplane (pictured at top). The beautiful Ranger-powered Fairchild 24H (N16902) flew in Base 2 CAP anti-sub operations. The now yellow-and-green restoration was donated to EAA by CAP supporter Geo Hindall, who attended many an annual Base 2 reunion in a crisp, tailored World War II CAP uniform. (Hindall also restored the blue, round-engine CAP Fairchild 24 displayed at EAA’s AeroShell Square many years by former CAPHF director Jack Faas of The Colony, Texas.)

Second, we can all give a nod to CAP’s brave World War II civilian fliers if Congress grants them the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014. I hear we may soon have news on this — and not a moment too soon. The WASPs, Tuskeegee Airmen, Code Talkers and many others have gotten some of their due in recent years. I would love to see World War II CAP fliers get a nod, even though there are so few left to tell you, “It was my privilege.”

After the Nazi sub threat withdrew from U.S. shores in August 1943, many CAP pilots went on to fly and fight in the military. Others flew CAP’s many other World War II domestic missions, including early search and rescue. They did their part in a novel, gutsy and selfless way. We who have supported, honored — and yes, loved — them, the Tom Worths and Eddie Edwards’s of GA, know that they would quietly just smile in characteristic modesty.

But we who have told their story are also sure that CAP’s World War II “Flying Minutemen” more than deserve that Congressional Gold Medal.

Come on, Congress, let’s hear from you in the new year, before another December passes into the lengthening shadows of World War II history.

 

© Drew Steketee 2013 All Right Reserved

Comments

  1. John Collins says:

    I was privileged to attend several of those Base 2 reunions when I was an active member of the Martinsburg CAP Squadron. It was a true honor to meet those veterans and hear their stories and share in the camaraderie.

    Another Patrol Base 2 aircraft is owned and flown by a member of the Squadron and it is a fitting tribute to those brave men and women who helped keep America’s shores safe in those early dark days of WWII. For those who want additional information on the coastal patrol bases I highly recommend the book “From Maine to Mexico” by Louis Keefer.

    Thanks for the report Drew.

  2. Great report Drew, and as to being more than “Boy Scouts of the Air”, CAP still does about 95% of the search and rescue missions in the lower 48. The recent missing family in Idaho were searched for and the area much narrowed by the efforts of CAP. CAP ground teams and annalists materially aided in their safe recovery and yet none of that made the national news reports about it.

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